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Web Applications & Hosting

In the early days of the internet, a website was nothing more exciting than a collection of documents made publicly available in the www folder of a connected file system. Over time, with the development of server-side scripting languages like ASP, SSI, and PHP, these documents took on dynamic properties and eventually web applications were born.

Most websites today — even simple blogs and single page sites — aren’t really document collections, they are database-backed web applications written in programming and scripting languages like PHP 5, Ruby on Rails, and Perl.

Web applications vs. Websites

The line between a “web application” and a website is not a clear-cut one at all. Some web applications present themselves to the user as if they are “apps,” in the sense that they have obviously dynamic functionality to them. Other web applications are used to manage the content and display of a site, which — to the user — seem completely static.

Building even the simplest website today requires an understanding of web applications. You don’t have to know how to build applications to set up a website, but it helps to have a sense of what types of applications underlie even the most basic types of sites.

Web applications, scripts and software -- what's the difference? There isn't any practical difference. These terms are used interchangeably. What one person calls an "application" another might call "software". "Scripts" is not used as often in recent years. 

Remember to check the Requirements

Every web application has certain technical requirements that must be met by the server that you plan to run it on. These are usually software dependencies (other programs or languages that must be installed), rather than hardware requirements.

If these minimum requirements are not met, the application will either not run at all, or (worse) will appear to run fine but will exhibit weird behavior that will eventually compromise your site.

If you click on any of the application names below, you will find a detailed description of the application along with notes about server requirements. Take these requirements into consideration when you are comparing web hosting features and deciding which web hosting company to use.

Be especially mindful of version numbers. Often web applications will need a particular version (or higher) of some language, library, or tool.

Popular web applications

Here is a quick overview of the most common types of web applications used in conjunction with web hosting. Near the bottom of this page you will find links to help you explore and compare various applications in detail, including hosts that support them.

CMSs -- Content Management Systems

Content Management Systems store content in a database, provide an admin interface for easily adding and editing content, and display content to website visitors using some kind of template or theming system. Many CMS applications are extensible through the use of plugins, allowing them to manage any type of content — blog posts, pages, events, products, videos, and anything else you can think of.

Almost all the web applications on this page could be classified in some way as Content Management Systems.However, this category refers only to those CMSes that provide general Content Management functionality, or which cross a number of different categories.

Which is the best CMS? The best CMS for your organization will depend on several factors. How much customization do you require? Are you a skilled program, or do you have skilled programmers to assist you? Do you want to create your site from scratch, or start with a theme?

The most popular CMS, by far, is WordPress. It offers simple setup and maintenance, thousands of free and paid themes, and a seemingly endless supply of available add-ons. However, Drupal and Joomla allow great customization and are typically preferred for E-commerce sites. Movable Type offers a premium CMS experience, ideal for enterprise clients. 

Many of the other CMSs listed on this page offer their own, unique advantages. Some require very little system resources. Some are primarily geared toward bloggers. Others specialize in forums or another web feature. 

When choosing a CMS, first decide what is most important to your organization, and find the option that specializes in that. It's also important to check that the solution you choose is still being actively developed and offers the level of support you need.

Blogging Apps

A blog is a website that displays pieces of dated content, usually in reverse chronological order. Blogs can be used for personal journals, company news, organizational announcements, and any other type of site where you need to update the content with timely information on a regular basis.

Most blogs also provide the ability to create timeless (not date specific) content, like About and Contact pages.

Why use a blog over a CMS, or vice-versa? Many content management systems are also blogging platforms, at least to some degree. In the case of WordPress, it’s a powerful blogging platform and a CMS in one. 

Other CMSs tend to specialize in one area or another, being website design, forums, E-commerce, etc. In those cases, the blogging functionality may not be as powerful as you would get with a dedicated blogging solution.

If you’re going to use WordPress to host your website, use it to host your blog too. If you’re using another CMS, or just a website builder, a dedicated blogging application may provide more in terms of customization, features, and usability. If you want a blog and nothing else, you may not need all the extra bells and whistles attached to a CMS.

eCommerce and Shopping Cart Apps

E-commerce applications typically provide you with an entire store, including the storefront, a means of adding new products, uploading product descriptions and photos, inventory management, a payment processor, and more. 

Shopping cart applications typically only provide a means of keeping track of selected products, calculating the total price, and accepting payment. 

Why use a shopping cart over an eCommerce application? You may not need a full eCommerce solution. For instance, if you are hosting your site through a CMS or hand-coded HTML, you may only need a shopping cart to keep track of orders and collect payment...not manage your entire website's content.

Website Builders

Website builders allow users to with very limited technical knowledge to publish websites.

What is the difference between a website builder and a CMS? A website builder does just what the name implies. It builds websites. And, usually, that’s it. A CMS, on the other hand, provides a variety of solutions in a single package. It can be used to build a website, create a blog, add a user forum, host an E-commerce store, include a picture gallery, and much, much more. The bigger CMSs include hundreds and even thousands of add-ons to provide additional functionality. 

However, even the simplest CMSs are more complicated to use than your average website builder. If your host offers a website builder, it is likely drag-and-drop, what-you-see-is-what-you-get. They typically feature several dozen to several hundred customizable templates, making it possible to get your website online in mere minutes.

If your organization just needs a simple web presence, a website builder will do the trick. If you intend to add additional features as you grow, starting with a CMS will make things much easier down the road.

Easy Installation for Applications

Many of the most popular web applications are free and Open Source, and many web hosting providers offer "one click installation" (or easy installation) of these apps from their hosting control panel.

Easy installation is usually provided by a third party install-wizard like Fantastico, Softaculous or SimpleScripts.

What is the difference between Fantastico, Softaculous, and SimpleScripts? All of these offer similar, simple one-click installations of the most popular web applications. Each has its own benefits and disadvantages.

Fantastico used to be the leader in install wizards, but it's shortcomings in terms of upgrades, customization, and lack of compatibility with some servers opened up the doors for other one-click wizards like Softaculous and SimpleScripts.

Softaculous offers over 345 scripts, daily upgrade checks, backup and restoration functions, and installation cloning for custom-coded applications. SimpleScripts offers fewer scripts (around 70), but still supports the most popular applications, and updates their scripts within minutes of the public release for most applications. 

All of these install wizards provide similar benefits and support the most popular web applications, and for most people will be far less important when choosing a web host than other features such as size, bandwidth, shared vs dedicated, etc.

Other Types of Web Applications

Want to create your own version of Facebook or eBay? There are web applications that can help create social networking or auction websites. In fact, there are dozens of options for each of those situations. 

We detail 400+ web applications in dozens of categories (auctions, blogs, cms, wikis, forums, galleries and much more). Browse through these categories via the links below:

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does anyone still use chat rooms?

    While not nearly as popular as they once were, chat rooms are still used for a number of purposes. They have primarily evolved into business tools, often included in project management or CRM applications for instant communications within a company, or social sites for special-interest groups. Traditional chat rooms still exist for various types of sci-fi enthusiasts, parents of special needs children, fan clubs for movie stars, and other niche groups. They are also commonly used within the Open Source community to provide support and discussions for Open Source projects.

  • How does a self-hosted CRM compare to a Software-as-a-Service CRM?

    With a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) application, you can expect to receive better support (because you’re paying a subscription fee), regular maintenance, and automatic updates. Because the SaaS provider is hosting the solution, they will also be largely responsible for implementing any required security measures. On the other hand, SaaS solutions are often significantly more expensive than a CRM you install yourself directly onto your server, and a self-hosted CRM will be much easier to customize to your business.

  • Don’t most CMSes include a photo gallery? What’s the point of a secondary application?

    Yes, most modern CMSes include some type of photo gallery, as do many other web applications, and often those are the very same photo galleries listed on this page. If you are using a CMS for your site, before you install a separate photo gallery (or any of the other web applications listed here for that matter), make sure it’s not already included. It may be, or they may offer a similar product. If it’s not included, it may be available as an add-on. Add-ons tend to be much easier to set up and usually are designed to automatically fit into your existing theme. On the other hand, if you need to customize your photo gallery, using a built-in or add-on version won’t give you the freedom of a separate installation. And in some cases, a CMS or web app may offer support for a particular photo gallery, but you will need to install it separately to take advantage of that feature.

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